Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a
person’s lifetime. It is part of a group of pervasive developmental disorders known
as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) that significantly affects how a person
perceives the world, interacts with others, and communicates. As its name implies,
ASD is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently and with varying
degrees of severity.
ASD is more. common than childhood cancer, cystic fibrosis, and multiple sclerosis
combined. It is estimated that as many as lout of every 110 children born today
will be diagnosed with some form of ASD (Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, 2007). This means that an estimated 1.5 million Americans (children
and adults) have an ASD today, and that more than 15 million Americans (loved
ones, caregivers, educators, etc.) are directly impacted by the disorder. In the state
of TN alone there are over 30,000 individuals living with ASD (based on 2006
Autism spectrum disorder knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. While ASD
is typically diagnosed in children, it is a lifelong disorder that affects individuals of
There is no known single, specific cause of autism. In some families there does
appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities – which suggests there is a
genetic basis to the disorder – although no single gene has been directly linked to
autism. Research today seems to indicate that the basis for autism does indeed lie
in both genetics and in environmental health. Many of the best scientific minds.
today do not believe that a single underlying cause of autism exists, but that it is
likely due to a constellation of causative factors that come into play differently for
What Autism Is Not:
Several outdated theories about causes and characteristics of autism have been
proven to be false.
• Autism is not a mental illness
• Autism is not the result of poor parenting;
• Children with autism are not unruly or spoiled kids who just have a behavior
• The vast majority of persons with autism are not savants, like the character
portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man;
• Children with autism are not without feelings and emotions.
Furthermore, no known psychological factors in the development of the child have
been shown to cause autism.
Is There More Than One Type of Autism?
Yes. there are five disorders that are grouped under the broad heading of “Pervasive
Developmental Disorder” or PDD.
• Autistic Disorder – impairments in social interaction communication, and
imaginative play which are usually seen by the age of three;
• Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) -
commonly referred to as atypical autism, a diagnosis of PDD-NOS may be made
when a child does not meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis, but there is a
severe and pervasive impairment in the areas of communication, social
interaction, and behavior;
• Asperger’s Disorder (or Asperger’s Syndrome) – characterized by impairments in
social interactions and the presence of restricted interests and activities, with no
significant delay in language and testing in the average to above average range
• Rett’s Disorder – a progressive disorder that occurs only in girls. A period of
normal development is followed by a loss of previously acquired skills, loss of
purposeful use of the hands replaced with repetitive hand movements beginning
at the age of one to four years;
• Childhood Disintegrative Disorder – normal development for at least the first
two years is followed by a significant loss of previously acquired skills.
Autism· is a spectrum disorder. This means that the symptoms and characteristics of
autism can present the ll1selves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to
severe. Although autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults
can exhibit any combination of the behaviors in any degree of severity.
What Are People With Autism Like?
Some children with autism spectrum disorders demonstrate a delay early in life
while others appear to develop typically until the age of 24-30 months, when
parents may notice delays or regression in language, play, or social interaction.
The following areas are among those that may be affected by autism:
• Communication: Develops language slowly or not at all; uses words that may not
be very meaningful or functional; communicates with gestures or behaviors
instead of words; displays short interactive attention span.
• Social Interaction: Spends time alone rather than with others; shows little
interest in making friends; shows limited understanding and responsiveness to
social cues such as eye contact or smiles.
• Sensory Impairment: May be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sights, sounds,
touch, smells, and tastes.
• Play: Lacks spontaneous or imaginative play; does not imitate others’ actions;
does not initiate pretend games; may prefer to use toys in odd ways such as
lining them up or spinning the wheels on toy car.
• Behaviors: May be overactive or very passive; throws tantrums for no apparent
reason; perseverates (shows an obsessive interest in a single item, idea activity,
or person); lacks common sense; may show aggression to others or self; often
has difficulty with changes in routine.
Individuals with autism usually exhibit at least half of the traits listed below. These
symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary in intensity from symptom to
symptom. In addition, the behavior usually occurs across many different situations
and is consistently inappropriate for their age.
• Insistence on sameness; resists changes in routine
• Severe language deficits
• Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
• Echolalia (repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language)
• Laughing, crying, or showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
• Prefers to be alone; aloof manner
• Tantrums – displays extreme distress for no apparent reason
• Difficulty in mixing with other children
• May not want cuddling or act cuddly
• Little or no eye contact
• Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
• Sustained odd play
• Spins objects or self
• Inappropriate attachment to objects
• Apparent oversensitivity or undersensitivity to pain
• No real fear of dangers
• Noticeable physical overactivity or extreme underactivity
• Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf although hearing tests in normal
• Uneven gross/fine motor skills. (May not kick a ball but can stack blocks.)
If your child is exhibiting any of these symptoms, it may be an indication that
additional developmental testing is needed. Please don’t delay – early intervention
is the key to a child’s successful development! Go to ASMS’s “Getting Started” page for
more information on how you can help your child. Remember – you are not alone!